Small-scale online learning projects can provide an opportunity for innovation and evaluation, as well as space to reflect on impact and outcomes.
Sustaining this kind of initiative beyond project funding or pilot time-scales can be challenging, particularly if staff have been funded or seconded on a temporary basis.
Innovations led by individuals can also be difficult to sustain if that member of staff leaves or has their energies directed elsewhere.
Adopting a strategic approach
Your institution needs to consider longer term sustainability of online learning initiatives during the planning and implementation phases, taking a strategic approach to consider:
- The need for appropriate change management mechanisms to stimulate culture change, and support staff through the changes
- Working with existing institutional structures and adapting these as appropriate. For online learning, this might include identifying how existing security measures can work for off-campus students, or how far assessment records can incorporate new forms of assessment data
- Embedding or aligning online learning initiatives within existing strategies, processes, systems, initiatives and services. Including online learning in mainstream strategy and policy gives a clear signal to staff that this is an important activity for the institution
- Creating guidance, tools and resources to meet stakeholders’ needs as they adapt to changes. This might include staff development materials, sessions, or tools and checklists to help staff consider all aspects of implementation
- Developing commercial and open approaches to sustaining and embedding innovation. Involving external partners either as co-authors of courses and content or having some interest in assessment or accreditation can help make online learning more sustainable.
Choice of technologies
Sustainability is affected by the choice of technologies that support online learning. External technologies and services are beyond the control of an institution, so it’s useful to have alternative solutions ready if services are withdrawn or encounter other problems.
Sustainability of all technology choices should be a part of overall risk assessment processes.
Involving external partners or participants in the development or implementation of online learning may affect sustainability and requires a risk assessment. Establishing formal contracts may be appropriate to ensure that their input is sustained, but in the case of open online students (link to content) this is unlikely to be easy.
Working with external partners can help your institution keep up to date with current and changing practices and adapting curricula appropriately.
This is likely to have a positive impact on the long-term sustainability of a course, by helping it to remain relevant and responsive to industry needs.
Your institution will monitor student retention (“drop-out”) for all courses, but this can be a particular issue for online learning students. The organisation needs to manage its relationships with online students so that they feel connected to the institution and have positive engagement with the course.
It’s important to ensure that your online students have good technical, educational and pastoral support.
Managing learning content
Learning content developed outside the usual institutional mechanisms can be challenging to manage and sustain.
Your institution will need to develop policies to determine how long content will be maintained and managed, particularly if created and owned by external participants (ie, not staff or registered students), or if it is stored in the cloud.
|Barriers||What you can do|
|Cost implications of sustaining short-term online learning pilots or projects beyond initial stages||Build in sustainability into planning and implementation|
|Provide staff training and support|
|Identify cost saving opportunities (eg, paying research students to facilitate online discussions)|
|Cultural barriers to change||Incorporate online learning into institutional strategy and policy to ensure sustainability|
|Staff engagement activities, training and support|